December 07, 2004
Reliable sources

I'll finish up The Politics of Jesus pretty soon, but one matter I've been thinking about, not connected to any specific chapter, is Yoder's approach to reading the Bible. After I read Progressive Christian's review of Spong's Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, I thought, that would also be an appropriate subtitle for Yoder's book.

What's especially interesting about this is that Yoder isn't just rescuing the Bible, but biblical inerrancy from fundamentalism. I don't know if he's a biblical inerrantist in every respect, but the point is that you can be a biblical inerrantist and still find his argument convincing. That was, I gather, what happened to Telford: he used to be more your standard Christian right guy, but was persuaded by Yoder and the Duke mafia to adopt pacifism and anti-Constantinianism.

It sounds like he's not the only one who's been down that road. The Perth Anabaptists have an interesting series of posts up about the similarities and differences between Anabaptism and other denominations, and this is what they say about Anabaptists and evangelicals:

On paper, there is a lot of scope for co-operation between evangelicals and anabaptists. Both emphasise the need for personal commitment to Jesus; both emphasise the authority of the Bible for belief and ethics.

In practice, the political conservatism of much evangelical practice, and the common disconnection of faith from ethics leave us anabaptists cringing.

Yet almost all of us at my church have come from an evangelical background. In one sense we tend to be post-evangelicals who have failed to find the fullness of Christ in the individualistic faith of typical evangelical churches. We believe that what you believe should really affect what sort of job you want, how you vote, who you hang out with, what you do with your money.

Yoder's criticism of conservative Christians is that, in fact, they don't read the Bible closely enough. For one thing, Yoder insists on reading and understanding the original Greek (no KJV partisan he). More importantly, Yoder exposes the fallacies inherent in the popular Christian practice of knowing the Bible through isolated passages and quotes. Everything needs to be read in its narrative and historical context, or its meaning will be lost.

I bring this up also because it seems popular for Protestants these days (such as here and here) to divide hermeneutics into two stark opposites: you either read the Bible as literal history or you don't.

That attitude has a few problems. On the one hand, it conflates literalism with inerrancy, when they are not the same. (Any decently educated Catholic could tell you that.) On the other side, it conflates biblical non-literalism with what N.T. Wright called "a hermeneutic of suspicion."

I think the fundamental question isn't, "Is the Bible literally true?" but, "Do you trust the people who wrote the Bible?" To that I think there are not two, but basically three answers:
1) Yes, we can trust them to tell us truthfully how God revealed himself to the world.
2) No, their prejudices and agendas distort God's message.
3) People didn't write the Bible, God wrote the Bible!
That is oversimplifying somewhat, since trust runs in degrees, but those seem to me to be the basic hermeneutical approaches out there. Wright, Yoder, and Catholicism in general fall into the first camp; Spong, Borg and the Jesus Seminar crowd into the second; and popular conservative Christianity into the third.

The funny thing is that approach 3) can actually lead to its own hermeneutic of suspicion. The popularity of dispensationalism among fundamentalists suggests to me that the idea that the Bible contains a hidden code about the end of the world sits easily with the idea that it's a direct communication from God to the entire world. Likewise, the habit of lifting quotes out of context may stem partly from the idea that if it's all true, you can take any part of it and it will have some message for you here and now. (I seem to remember that President Bush belonged to a Bible study group based on that idea, where you pull a line out of the Bible and meditate on its relevance to your life or something. Does anybody know what I'm talking about?)

Yoder, on the other hand, assumes that the Bible is what it appears to be: a series of written oral histories and letters by certain people at certain times. In fact, despite his nitpicking about translating words and such, for the most part Yoder's textual evidence about Jesus and his mission is hidden in plain sight. Even if you don't buy every single argument Yoder makes (and I don't), he delivers a mortal blow to the idea that biblical inerrancy will inevitably lead you to think like Jerry Falwell.

That many Anabaptists should be former evangelicals is appropriate, since Anabaptism is the grandfather (or at least the granduncle) of all modern low churches. For someone like Telford to adopt some Anabaptist theology (and teach it at an evangelical college) isn't so much a defection as a return to the roots. Yoder is persuasive to evangelicals, I think, because he proceeds from many of the same assumptions at the same time that he challenges them. I mean, you can play games like this with biblical literalists, but that hardly helps increase their trust in a God who asks for their whole lives. I think that probably a more helpful way to deal with inerrantists is to help unhitch inerrancy from its political and cultural baggage. This will not resolve every debate (such as creationism/evolution), but it might help de-polarize it some.

Posted by Camassia at December 07, 2004 01:35 PM | TrackBack

I don't think that Yoder was an inerrantist in any sense of the word, but that his concern was merely with properly understanding the canon and its meaning, as opposed to more liberal scholars of the historical Jesus who see the canon as a stumbling point to understanding. In TPOJ Yoder gives plenty of ink to the more liberal scholars, but argues essentially that while their quest may present a more socially concerned Jesus, the canon presents a Jesus sufficiently socially concerned as it is. I think the basic problem is that the liberals and conservative agree together that the canon is inherently socially conservative, and thus the liberals see it as betraying Jesus' call to social concern, and the conservative see it as showing that Jesus had little social concern. At which point Yoder argues the alternative, that the canon presents a Jesus that is very socially concerned, and so however one reads the Bible they should recognize Jesus as actively engaged in the social reality.
The problem I think is that people's usually rely on their cultural experiences in interpreting scripture, and the canon has been culturally deemed as socially and economically conservative. So liberals reject the canon on accout of its conservatism and conservatives embrace the canon for the same reason, but neither actually allow the canon to speak for itself fully apart from American culture.

Posted by: NJL on December 7, 2004 03:23 PM

Right. I think trusting the NT's sources doesn't have to mean thinking they were free from error in every nitpicky detail (though it can mean that) so much as believing that they got Jesus right. In this respect Yoder stands in marked contrast to Marcus Borg, who figures the apostles started making things up almost immediately after Jesus ascended (perhaps including the ascension itself!). So the fact that they're both non-inerrantists shows how little meaning that category actually has.

Posted by: Camassia on December 7, 2004 03:58 PM

You may find this interesting; I just used it in companionship with a feminist piece to teach hermeneutics to my intro Bible class:

Posted by: mg on December 7, 2004 09:25 PM

What I think is that the NT is a vessel of inerrant Truth, without being historically accurate in every detail. The truth of the bible transcends reportage.

Posted by: Rob on December 8, 2004 05:19 AM

Dear Camassia,

This is a very fine analysis. I haven't read Yoder--I've tried a couple of times, but somehow he just doesn't resonate with me. But this gives me cause to reconsider. Thank you.



Posted by: Steven Riddle on December 8, 2004 09:35 AM

This is a great post. When it's read in tandem with your previous one, it's a compelling description of why this is such a fascinating time of potentially radical eccleciological realignments.

Can this groundswell of "catholic" post-liberal, post-evangelical protestant sentiment form an institutionally embodied church committed to personal and social discipleship?

Posted by: Andy on December 8, 2004 11:29 AM

I think the fundamental question isn't, "Is the Bible literally true?" but, "Do you trust the people who wrote the Bible?"

This is the key insight of a great post. This is closely related to the issue I e-mailed you about a few weeks back about the historical continuity and authority of the Church (not the same point, but related). "The people who wrote the Bible" are the same people who were the nucleus of the primitive Church; and the authenticity of their experience of Jesus and the reliability of their transmission of His message is the linchpin of this whole Christian thing.

BTW, in addition to Catholicism you can put Eastern Orthodoxy and confessional Lutheranism into your first camp.

Posted by: Chris Jones on December 8, 2004 12:42 PM

Oh, and isn't what Bush and his friends do called "reader-response" level criticism?

Posted by: Hugo on December 9, 2004 08:37 AM

My Grandmother was in Pres. Bush's study group, I think. She could decide to do one thing, and quote a Bible verse to support her position, change her mind, and quote a different one to support her new position, without blinking an eye. After all, the Bible was always right, did it matter which part you quoted?

I agree with the folks above, this was a good read. I would modify the second of your three categories, above ("No, their prejudices and agendas distort God's message"), to also add that God's message is distorted by our capacity to understand and conceptualize. If, for example, John drafted Revelation after having a true vision of Armageddon, he would not sit down and describe F-18 fighter aircraft, H-bombs, and Tommahawk cruise missles. He'd have to use his concepts and language to explain something that his language was not designed to explain. I imagine we'd get a description of flying beasts, etc. Even if John managed to avoid any overt agenda, and did his best not to betray any prejudices (impossible, I know), there would still be limits on his ability to convey God's message. My 2 cents, anyway.

Posted by: A Progressive Christian on December 9, 2004 10:23 PM

That's a great post; wise words.

Posted by: graham on December 10, 2004 07:55 AM

Great post. I find myself wavering between the first answer and the second. On the one hand, I don't believe the Bible is inerrant in any sense; not only don't I think it's a literal science text, I also think it can contain human errors and agendas and misunderstandings, mingled with God's revelation. On the other hand, when I was reading Borg and N.T. Wright side by side, I found myself leaning more toward Wright than Borg, in the level of trust I was willing to give the gospel writers. I do see the people who wrote the Bible as a more trustworthy guide than not.

Posted by: Lynn Gazis-Sax on December 10, 2004 08:01 AM

P.C., I agree, and that's why I drew the distinction between literalism and inerrancy. The Catholic Church, for instance, has always held that the Bible is inerrant, but has also held that Revelation is a metaphor (I forget exactly for what, I think Rome under Nero). To me, that's a different thing from saying that, for instance, the apostles' stories about being visited by the resurrected Jesus were driven by power struggles within the church (based on who saw him first). The latter takes the inconsistencies between the Gospels in bad faith, whereas the former view is just allowing for poetic language.

Posted by: Camassia on December 10, 2004 09:12 AM

To briefly address Hugo: I'm an English major who actually likes some aspects of reader response theories, which actually have very little to do with the quite vulgar "what I personally think about the text" or "how I responded to the text" but is something much less individualistic, pertaining more to the issue of "how does the text work to elicit a certain type of response in the reader."

As for Camassia's categorization, I think that some aspects of the first option are worthwhile, but perhaps three and a half years in English grad school have made me unable to not give quite a bit of credence to more suspicious readings of anything. I've read a bit of N. T. Wright, and sometimes he seems to be a bit too credulous. On the other hand, many scholars are very overly-critical (and yes, publication, and hence the desire not to be right but cutting-edge, has a lot to do with it). I actually think its good to have a fair number of people on both sides (and/or falling somewhere in the middle (as I do; I think it's probably the mark of being in the right place when both sides can legitimately attack you)), as long as there is a willingness to keep lines of communication open (and it seems like in many places there is; it is the people who fall into the third category who most tend to exclude or be excluded from discussions).

Posted by: Kyle on December 12, 2004 12:19 AM
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